February 6, 2024 - 5:00pm

It’s always weird, and usually funny, to see people interacting with things that aren’t really there. Movements that make perfect sense when you are playing tennis, or wrestling zombies, become abstract and absurd when nobody else can see the tennis ball, or the zombies. The videos of Apple Vision Pro wearers typing, swiping and zooming in thin air, while sitting on a train or at the gym, have a similar air, with added nerd.

I was excited to hear about the new mixed-reality headset. When I tried something similar a few years ago — the Microsoft Hololens — I found the capacity to bring imaginary objects into physical space near-magical. A virtual hummingbird landed on my physical radio microphone. Conjuring up a 3D model on a real desk, I could move elements around, using hand gestures alone, and so could anyone else with the right kit. I could share with others both real space and virtual artefacts and processes. 

The potential is immense, as I told anyone who would listen. This new technology would soon let us share the products of our imagination with others, defying the limits of physical space. We can not only enter a world of the mind, but take others with us, finally breaking down the barriers between our shared physical reality and our individual, screen-mediated, multichannel worlds.

And now here it is, the Apple Vision Pro, a device that allows the wearer to see the real world around them at the same time as whatever virtual world — or worlds — are displayed to their eyes alone. They can simultaneously read emails and navigate busy pavements, commute and edit documents, drink coffee and chat to friends around the globe.

But hang on, don’t we already do all those things, thanks to our always-connected, always-with-us devices? Smartphones, tablets and laptops have enabled us to exist in more than one world ever since ubiquitous internet access turned the tables on our capacity to connect. We don’t check our messages any more: the messages notify us. 

The technology may be new and thrilling, but what is new about the Apple Vision Pro users, aware of their physical world while they interact with a virtual one that only they can see? Pavements are already full of people paying more attention to their phone screen than their own feet. On public transport, fewer and fewer conversations happen between passengers, more and more between a passenger and another person in a different space. Our attention and our relationships are already multichannel most of the time — we are seldom truly apart, and seldom truly together.

Your fellow passengers are more interested in their online life than in you, and now they can wear a headset that signals that to the world. At least when somebody is reading a book, you can try to catch their eye and ask what they like about that fictional world, or tell them you’ve read it too. In a mixed-reality headset, what they’re enjoying is not for your eyes, mere mortal.

Yet again, what I find truly dystopian is not so much the technology, but the limited, atomising uses to which it is being put. What could be a genuinely new way to use technology to connect with each other, to communicate and collaborate in a multi-dimensional universe, is in danger of becoming yet another barrier between us. We’re quick to blame the tech for taking us out of social life and down our own private rabbit holes, but at some point we will have to take responsibility for how we use it.

Timandra Harkness presents the BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and How To Disagree. Her book, Big Data: Does Size Matter? is published by Bloomsbury Sigma.